In Small Giants, which we will be posting a review for soon (if we haven’t already – remember, I write these posts severely out of order and in advance of their publication), several of the interviewed entrepreneurs express regret about the original course they set for their businesses, and the difficult, climactic places to which they went before realizing that they preferred to keep their businesses small and not follow the traditional path. While I understand the surface sentiment, the more that I thought about it, and the context in which it was expressed, the less sense it made to me. To explore why, let’s think about time travel.
If you could go back in time and change one thing about your life, what would it be? It’s a question I hear with some frequency, or its variation – what do you know now that you wished you knew earlier? Both of these questions are really poking at regrets. A regret is really just something that we wish that we could change about our pasts, but since time travel to the past is not currently possible, that change cannot be made. This idea of a change that you might desire to make, but cannot, is the essence of regret. But let’s say that your species managed to develop time travel, and didn’t mess it up as badly as those folks in the Large Magellenic Cloud did. Now, whatever your answer to those questions, you can do something about it. You can go back and make sure that you know the thing you wished you knew sooner, or change the thing that you wanted to change.
Queue swirling lights and rushing sound effects as we go back in time to stop regretting things and make our lives go how we wish they could have gone, with all of the wisdom and hindsight of our later years. After an arbitrary passage through time and space, we find our former self, and we say something like “hey, don’t invest your money there, use it to start the business you’ve always dreamt of.” Then, ignoring all considerations of paradox, physics, entropy, and causality, we zip back to the present time to see how much better our life is now that we made the choice we always wished we had.
Except that something isn’t quite right. We don’t feel as satisfied with our lives as we thought we would, it seems like something is missing. We suppose that we must want to be in the position that we are now, because we cared enough about it to travel back in time and tell ourselves to do it, but it just doesn’t seem very fulfilling, and it isn’t working as well as we thought it would. We’re slowly coming to regret that we ever made that change to the timeline in the first place.
This isn’t simply Bradbury’s Butterfly Effect, although it is related. Every day, we make hundreds, thousands of decisions that have an effect on who we will be in the future and what our lives will be like. Those decisions, and the experiences that result, affect our personalities, opinions, and values, too. Changing those things that we regret could lead us to becoming someone quite different, with different regrets and different desires. An entrepreneur who builds a company and sells it before realizing that he actually wanted to keep the business private might regret the decision to sell, and start a new company that they keep private. Yet if they hadn’t sold that first business, they might not have had the money or the experience to successfully start the second one with which they are more satisfied. Had they kept the first business private, they might always have wondered about the money they could have made or the success they could have had from selling.
It’s a slippery slope of hypotheticals, and it’s worth remembering how much of life is about contrast. The harder you work, the more you look forward to and enjoy the occasional breaks. The more you have to scrape to make ends meet now, the more you’ll value things when times aren’t so hard. Nor does this apply only to economics and business; it can as easily apply to relationships. My wife and I took our relationship long distance for six years, and you can be certain that we now value being together far more than we might have otherwise. Someone who has had poor experiences with friends will value the good friend they finally find all the more. Though it might be tempting to want to go back and change things to make our lives easier or better, without those contrasts “better” won’t mean so much.
More than anything, the point is that regrets are slippery, because you never know how things might turn out if they had gone differently in the past. We are products of our experiences, and changing our experiences will inevitably change the product – maybe in a small way, maybe in a big way, but it will be changed. Now, maybe you might want to change the product, or think you want to change the product. Yet I would still urge caution. We can only be in a position to regret something if we have learned that something different might have been better, which means that we learned something. It’s okay to wonder how things could have gone differently, but it’s foolish to let regrets gnaw at us. Even if you could change it, you’ll probably just end up regretting something else. All we can do is take where we are now, and strive to make the most of our circumstances, whatever that may look like for each of us. With no regrets.